Theater Translation and Cultural Interpretation

During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session titled Exporting Spanish Culture Through Theater Translation. It was presented by Jorge Braga Riera, Associate Professor at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and author of Classical Spanish Drama in Restoration English (1660-1700).

Braga commented on selected classic Spanish plays that were performed in theaters in the UK and the USA between 1998 and 2008, among them adaptations of masters from Spain's Golden Age of literature: Miguel de Cervantes, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, María de Zayas, Lope de Vega, and Tirso de Molina.

He started out by highlighting the fact that the English-speaking audience largely ignores the work of the most important Spanish playwrights and, consequently, translation activity is scarce. As for the performative context, that is, how foreign plays are going to be experienced by the audience, Braga explained that there are three components that influence theater translation and adaptation: social, political, and religious contexts.

In the social arena, the presenter mentioned issues concerning how Spain is perceived internationally. "They always try to do something related to flamenco," Braga joked, mentioning one of the most popular cultural manifestations from his native country.

Using Calderón's La vida es sueño as an example―which was recently translated as "Life is a Dream" and "Sueño: A Play in Three Acts"―he mentioned that some translations have adapted its contents so that the main character, Segismundo, Prince of Poland, would marry a female character named Rosaura to assure a "happy ending." In other versions, Rosaura's subplot gains more importance, so that her role is elevated and seen as equal to that of Segismundo.

From top left, clockwise:

Calderón's La vida es sueño,
Alarcón's La verdad sospechosa,
Molina's El burlador de Seville,
Lope de Vega's Lo fingido verdadero,
and Zayas' La traición en la amistad

About the social role of women in Spanish theater, Braga reminded the audience that these classic plays often portray ladies as the property of men―their fathers or husbands―but contemporary translations are free to show a more liberal side, given the context of the performance. In these cases, translators resort to enhancement mechanisms, alter roles in the story, adapt a female character's language register (changes in decorum and archaic language that becomes modern idioms,) and even make sexual comments more explicit.

However, the presenter called the audience's attention to what he dubbed as "technical distractions," such as the introduction of sexual openness and more outrageous wardrobes. In this particular point, Braga recalled that María de Zayas' La traición en la amistad, translated in 2006 as "Friendship Betrayed," featured a character called Fenisa dressed like Madonna―the singer, not the religious figure.

As for political contents, the presenter mentioned the issue of war prisoners and concentration camps in "Life is a Dream," and how some versions have changed the ideology of the original or resorted to cultural appropriation in order to adapt the story to a more contemporary political context. The same is true about socio-political representations of homosexuality, such as Segismundo's situation when compared to that of the gay community, or Lope de Vega's La prueba de los ingenios, translated as "Labyrinth of Desire," whose 2006 translation and production explored homoerotic elements.

Lastly, about the religious context in which classic Spanish plays have been translated, Braga had a very important remark: “Sometimes religion can be the reason why Spanish plays are translated into English.” He mentioned the specific case of the Catholic University of Los Angeles, which commissioned a new translation of Lope de Vega's Lo fingido verdadero as "Pretending Made True" so that it could be adapted to 20th century California.

Concluding his presentation, Braga left the audience with some questions so that we could reflect on the role of theater translators:

  • Should we alter the spirit, the culture or literature of the original? 
  • Should we make allowances when portraying culture in translated classics?
  • Should theater translation be turned into a marketable commodity?

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).